‘You must appreciate the health-giving properties of honey then?, I ask expectantly.
‘Oh no, I know nothing about them. It’s just a fancy you see – I simply like honey – I always have. My father loved honey too. I don’t have just a spoon or two either; probably a jar or more a week.’
You could have knocked me down with a feather. My ranting about the great healing and medicinal powers of honey fluttered around her ears, falling to the floor stone dead – for her, honey was just a fancy. But why should she be any different from the millions of people across the world, from every continent, every religion, creed and colour, who’s natural fancy is honey?
Why do millions of us cling to honey if we know nothing about its shotgun ability to kill germs and infection? Mother Nature has made this rescue remedy so irresistibly sweet and comforting – so thick and syrupy, with such a soothing texture – that we don’t give its medicinal qualities a second thought. Our ancestors used medicines from the beehive without question – not just honey, but propolis, polllen and beeswax – because they worked and helpt them to heal when nothing else did. Tribesmen throughout Africa and South America still risk their lives invading wild beehives hanging from trees and rock faces. They bear excruciating stings from defending bees, even risking death to lift this precious sweetener and divine liquid sunshine to their lips. I doubt if they have been tutored in the remarkable benefits of honey – they just devour it as often as possible. They put it on wounds and charge their body with every drop they eat.
Although we have so much knowledge today, most people know very little about honey and its healing powers. But still we instinctively turn to it when we feel under the weather. Sore throats, chesty coughs and heady colds make us reach for the honey pot. Instantaneously, an energy burst explodes in a flagging body and soreness is soothe by is satiny texture.
So what facts are we missing? Above all that honey is so powerfully antibacterial it is used in hospitals to treat infected surgical wounds, overpowering superbugs that refuse to respond to traditional antibiotics. Research in New Zealand has shown that honey deserves to move into the serious league for healing and restoring infected and inflamed skin, from wounds and ulcers to burns. In the United States, honey has proven itself head and shoulders better in relieving night-time coughs in children than proprietary cough suppressants containing dextromethorphan. Honey has no side-effects: it is pure and most of all effective. Even the World Health Organisation recommends honey for soothing sore throats. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg – for honey secretly and tirelessly works in metabolic multiplicity, regulating our bodies through an active day, while winding us down at night to ensure a refreshing sleep.
It is my mission to make sure that the superlative healing properties of honey and the other produce of the hive become better known – as the universal panacea they truly are, as well as a truly delectable natural foodstuff. But I am also motivated by those who make the products – the honeybees. Because if we value their products we might do more to safeguard their future.
Honey only comes from honeybees – nobody has been able to invent or develop a machine (or the materials) to manufacture honey – and for them honey-making is an industrial process that mocks the modest attempts at industry plied by man. The raw material, nectar, is gathered laboriously from thousands upon thousands of flowers. Bees are an enviable workforce: they can work nearly 24 hours a day and swear unswerving allegiance to their ‘boss’, the queen bee. They ask for nothing in return except their tiny food collections.
Never a morning begins without a visit to the bees on the upper meadows. Are they flying? Are they busy? What sounds are they making? I instantly know the weather from the bees. They are the sounding board of our environment and put official weather forecasters to shame with their accurate predictions. But bees are no different from any other living thing on this planet. They hunt for food and water like any other living thing on this planet. They hunt for food and water like every other wild animal, and are just as subject to disease and attack from mammals, insects, birds, moulds, germs and all manner of parasites – that’s besides anything we humans throw in their direction. Nevertheless, they have survived for more than one hundred million years.
No Bees, No Honey
But the bee population in the UK has plumetted by 50 per cent over the last twenty years and by 30 per cent globally. In the last few years a mysterious problem called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has devastated the world’s bee population. One week the bees are buzzing and filling the hive to bursting, the next week most of the worker bees have gone, leaving only the queen and a thin number of young bees around her. The hive is finished, the remaining bees being too weak to collect nectar or pollen. It is a tear-jerking sight for a beekeeper – every sinew in your body feels helpless and hapless.
This should clang alarm bells in all our ears, not just those of beekeepers. Bees have the patent on honey, and if many colonies collapse it will be difficult to produce honey in the quantities demanded by expanding global populations. More importantly, colony collapse has implications for our ability to produce enough food to feed the planet. Honeybees are our pollinators. Every third mouthful of our food (according to Laurence Harder, Professor of Pollination at the University of Calgary) comes about thanks to the armies of worker bees transferring pollen from one flower to the next. Pollination of over a hundred crops worldwide is threatened. It’s not just fresh fruit and vegetables that are affected. Other bee-derived products we take for granted include cotton clothing (what would we do without denim?), nuts, cosmetics, drugs and pills, car paints and industrial lubricants – all due to the hard work of bees.
What’s the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder? There is no straightforward answer. The Varroa mite has been blamed, a parasite that sucks the life-blood from bees. But CCD is a problem with many causes. Potential factors include the plant insecticides neonicotinoids, which have been condemned and withdrawn in France, Italy, Slovenia and Germany. These powerful insecticides are offered as a vigorous seed dressing and work on the nervous systems of insects, including honeybees, affecting their flight, navigation, homing and foraging systems.
This is probably not the whole picture. Bees require a cornucopia of flowers from which to select the highest quality proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals – their immune systems depend on it and so does the hive’s battle against disease. In the past decades we have lost vast swathes of wild habitat and pasture. They have been reseeded with vast acres of single crop (or monocrop) – look out for those glaring acres of electric yellow oil seed rape in spring. Bees thrive on different pollens and nectars and their immune systems require endless varieties of flowers to provide the nutritional alphabet that their metabolism demands. When forced onto monocrops, their immune systems suffer, collapsing when faced with viruses that used not to be a threat.
Ancient hedgerows wind into the distance at our bee farms. Hedgerows are king, for their diversity and seasonal blossom – the bees just love hedgerow flowers and the wild plants blossoming around their roots. The high standard of our antibacterial honey is thanks to hedgerows, trees and the complete flower biodiversity available to our bees. I know to the cost of my fretted nerves that bees only forage on what they prefer. Last year they cocked a snoot at acres of phacelia flowers, dallied mildly among the wild flowers, vigorously enjoyed
This book reveals the treasure trove of foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and industrial processes that bees – and bees alone – have freelyoffered to our human population for thousands of years. Have we taken more from them than we have given back? Now is the time to appreciate what they have given us, to give thanks and start making amends. We can begin by supporting organic farming, which avoids the use of insecticides. Let’s take a signal from the French, who have instigated a project to sow nectar-rich wild flowers at the edge of motorways. And we can buy raw unprocessed honey at health food stores, online and at farmer’s markets, packed full of life-enhancing ingredients. It might not provide a complete answer, but let’s give these wonderful creatures the help they deserve.